We have all been there. Four friends with busy schedules finally manage to set a date to meet up for dinner at a central-London restaurant. One is having chicken for their main course; one is having steak; and the final two are having the vegetarian risotto and the fish respectively. And now you have to order one bottle of wine that will pair acceptably with everybody’s food. Plus matters might be complicated by the fact that everybody refers red wine to white. Conventional wisdom, on the other hand, dictates that those having fish, chicken and risotto should be having white in order to achieve a proper match with their food – what to do, what to do?
According to Mark de Vere MW of Robert Mondavi Winery, the first step to success is to throw conventional wisdom out of the window. I discovered this when I was recently invited to take my friend Andrew of Spittoon’s place at a dinner hosted by Robert Mondavi at JW Steakhouse in Park Lane. The main restaurant is a large space, made surprisingly inviting by the use of dark wood and brass fittings, reminiscent of a Chicago steakhouse. Our meal, however, took place in the more intimate surroundings of the small private dining room, where Mark had promised us an eye-opening presentation on the “liberated enjoyment of wine”. According to Mark, the accepted system of pairing wine with food based on colour (red wine with red meat) or weight (a heavy, oaked Chardonnay with fish I a heavy, creamy sauce) builds in the strong possibility of customer disappointment. He described a situation that I have often witnessed, where a diner orders and tastes wine; then has a mouthful of food, tastes the wine again, and finds it much less appealing and wondering why he chose it in the first place. Often, we explain this away by saying “oh, it’s obviously not a food wine” or words to that effect. However, Mark proposes that the answer lies in balancing the flavours of the food and wine, rather than the fact that some wines pair better with some foods than others.
We all know that there are five tastes that the human palate can distinguish: sweet, salt, sour/acid, bitter and umami. For the purposes of his presentation, Mark focused only on sweetness and umami on the one hand; and saltiness and acidity on the other. According to Mark, foods tending to be naturally high in sweetness or umami will produce a predictable result: any wine that you taste immediately after eating such foods will have its strongest (and often less pleasant flavours) intensified – such as acidity, tannins or oakiness. But the converse is also true: if you consume foods that contain sufficient levels of salt and acidity, your perception of the stronger and less pleasant flavours in a wine will be decreased. So any wine you taste immediately after eating such food will taste milder and less sharp and often, serving salty food with a wine can be a way of masking overpowering flavours. When the correct balance is struck between sweet/umami and salt/acidity in your food, then you will perceive the flavours of the wine as unchanged before and after the food – no matter what the colour of the wine or the heaviness of the food.
To illustrate his theory, Mark had put out some wine for us to try together with some food that he had specially asked the kitchen to prepare: pieces of grilled fish, chicken and beef, cooked with no seasoning – but all naturally high in umami. But first, the wines:
• Robert Mondavi Winery Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 [Adegga / Snooth] – deep plum colour, blackberries and a hint of stemmy greenness on the nose; good structure, balanced tannins, dark berry fruit and some almost savoury, white pepper notes on the palate.
For our taste experiment, Mark had us taste all the wines first. Then he had us taste the fish, and then re-taste the whites, which you would expect to match well with the fish. The Fume Blanc seemed to have lost both its upfront fruit and its length, leaving only an unpleasant acidity; while the Chardonnay suddenly became overpoweringly oaky and spicy, with an abrupt finish. We also tried the Pinot Noir after a mouthful of plain fish, and suddenly the wine tasted way too tannic and acidic. We then tried something similar with the chicken, and then the plain grilled steak with the Cabernet Sauvignon. Once again, the result was surprising: the steak made the wine taste overripe and far too high in tannins and acid – in other words, downright unpleasant.
But then we tested Mark’s theory that these high-umami foods simply needed to have salt and acid added to balance their flavours. We added some sea salt and lemon juice to the fish, chicken and steak and tried them all again, with the various wines. Astonishingly, the addition of sufficient salt and lemon juice made all the wines taste the same after food as they had originally tasted before we had eaten anything. Most surprising was the fact that the Cabernet Sauvignon tasted fine with the fish, once the fish had been salted and lemoned; and the fact that not only did the Pinot Noir eaten with the salted and lemoned fish taste the way it was supposed to; but that it also made the fish taste fantastic. As an experiment, we also tried the Inniskillin Riesling ice wine with the salted and lemoned steak – and the wine tasted just as it was meant to! And I am reasonably sure that there is no wine and food matching book that would recommend steak with an ice wine!
Our little taste experiment was followed by dinner, kicking off with a selection of starters which included a mixed leaf salad, deep-fried calamari rings, and a charcuterie platter featuring heavenly smoked duck breast. For my main course I ordered the New York strip steak – an absolutely gorgeous piece of meat cooked to delicate deep pink perfection and accompanied by excellent fries; both Bearnaise and pepper sauce; French beans; a truly impressive tower of excellent onion rings; and cheesy creamed spinach. For dessert, we were offered a lovely frosted glass bowl of ice creams, a cheesecake and some squares of delicious-looking bread and butter pudding. I seriously had no room for the bread and butter pudding, but I did try the excellent pistachio ice cream, and the cheesecake which I can only describe as… peculiar neither a gelatine-based fridge-tart type; nor a classic baked cheesecake – more like the consistency of slightly tart marshmallow fluff. Like I said – odd. We also had two more wines to drink with dinner, namely the 2009 Robert Mondavi Winery Napa Valley Fume Blanc Reserve (a subtle and elegant wine, less obviously fruity than the standard Blanc Fume but with more pronounced floral flavours); and the 2008 Robert Mondavi Winery Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve (an inky black colour; beautiful structured tannins balanced by ample Ribena-like blackcurrant fruit and a long, surprisingly fresh, clean finish).
In summary, it was a pleasantly intriguing evening – something entirely different from the usual food and wine matching dinner concept. Mark was an enthusiastic and engaging (dare I say evangelical?!) speaker who has obviously put a lot of thought into developing his theory, and has perfected the presentation over a number of years.
The results, however unlikely they sound on paper, prove to be quite arresting when you experience them for yourself and definitely provide food for thought for those who have been persuaded by social pressure or a snooty sommelier to order red wine with steak, even though Chardonnay is the only wine they drink. However, I was not entirely convinced by Mark’s assertion that this pressure to order the accepted with a particular food is a huge problem. Surely a simple “I’m the customer, I am paying for it, and it’s what I want” would suffice? My other niggle is that the entire experiment and evening was predicated on the fact that the wrong flavours in the food can make the wines taste bad; and that once this is fixed and the wine tastes as it should, all is well with the world.
But what about the effect of the wine on the food? Nothing was said about this, and when the question was raised, Mark skirted the issue – which is fine, seeing as wine is his field. But still, the foodie in me was left feeling slightly unfulfilled. It’s easy to adjust the flavours of your food until the wines taste just right, but the reverse is obviously not possible: you have to take the wine as you find it, and it will either augment or diminish the flavours of your food. I also know that there are wines that most certainly elevate foods to something quite sublime, and others that do no such thing. So I think it is probably an oversimplification to say that the entire concept of “the right wine” with “the right food” is outdated and incorrect – but that could be the topic of a whole other tasting seminar!
Thanks to Robert Mondavi and Mark de Vere for a fascinating dinner, and thanks to Andrew for inviting me to attend in his place.
Wine and Food Tasting Mondavi Style – is a guest post written by Jeanne of Cooksister.